And then the rumors began. Word on the street (aka the Internet) was that Mazda may be adding a manual transmission to the larger engine. Needing to know if this was true, I sent a flood of e-mail to Mazda’s PR representatives. “Is it true? When is it available? Is it here yet?”
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After weeks without a reply, the answer I was looking for came. The car had arrived at Mazda headquarters and was ready for evaluation.
It’s time for me to see if adding a manual to the 185 HP engine with a stout 184 lb-ft of torque turns the Mazda3 into a semi-sport compact that can rival the likes of the Honda Civic Si and Kia Forte SX Turbo?
Row, Row, Row Your Gears
With a six-speed manual transmission already available on the Mazda3’s smaller 2.0-liter engine, it would have been easiest for Mazda to just simply slap the transmission onto the larger engine from the start. But for whatever reason, the manufacturer decided to wait a year. Hey, better late than never, right?
Much like I found in the manual Mazda6, the clutch uptake in the Mazda3 is abrupt. The catch point is high and very sudden. It feels like the clutch pedal springs are set too stiff. Smooth low speed shifts or flawless heel-toe downshifts are hard to accomplish. Like most Mazda manuals though, actual gear lever engagement is short and precise.
Still Fast, Still Frugal
With the Mazda3 Grand Touring only weighing 2,978 lbs, the car has a favorable power to weight ratio for its class. Power delivery is smooth and abundant, allowing the manual transmission to really exploit all the ponies under the hood. Despite that the engine still feels sort of soft at low RPM without little initial torque.
By switching from a frugal automatic gearbox to a sportier manual one, fuel economy takes a bit of a hit. Official ratings are down to 26 MPG city and 35 MPG highway for the new six-speed manual compared to the automatic’s ratings of 27 MPG city and 37 MPG highway. During my time with the manual Mazda3 I averaged 28.7 MPG.
Balanced Be Thy Name
Aside from the manual transmission, everything else about the car more-or-less stays the same. The Grand Touring model still features precise steering and wears 215/45R18 tires bolted to one of the most balanced chassis in the compact car segment. Recently I attended the Skip Barber Racing School at Laguna Seca where the driving instructors all use stock 2014 Mazda3s for teaching students the track. They all commented on how dialed in the chassis is for a regular compact car, which led us to a discussion about how great a new Mazdaspeed3 could be.
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With the manual transmission selected, a few items are omitted from the Mazda3 Grand Touring option list, most notably the Technology Package. This means there is no i-ELOOP system or adaptive cruise control. Because of these and other missing features, the dashboard ends up wearing a few dummy buttons.
The 2015 Mazda3 starts at $19,740 after destination charges, while the cheapest way into a manual 2.5-liter costs $25,440. Fully loaded, my “s Grand Touring 5-door” test vehicle came in at $26,640 which is a $1,050 savings over a similarly equipped automatic transmission version.
Like most compact cars, the uptake for transmissions with a third-pedal on the top of the line Mazda3 has always been small. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a company buck the trend of most other automakers and actually add more manual transmission options instead of eliminating them.
For years Mazda has prided itself on being a car company for drivers. With the addition of the new manual transmission Mazda3 Grand Touring, the small company from Hiroshima is once more proving it.